Ten days before opening night, SPACES' walls are bare and the galleries empty, except for a couple of folding tables and a few stalagmite sculptures by the Israeli artist Efrat Klipshtien, left over from the gallery's last show. The gallery is preparing for director Christopher Lynn's first foray into programming here. He's been at the helm of SPACES for about a year, but until now, all the exhibits presented under his leadership were planned prior to his arrival. This week's opening of the Plum Academy: an Institute for Situated Practices is his vision, and it marks a departure from the gallery's object-oriented past.
The one physical manifestation of Plum Academy is a test patch of black chalkboard paint, made according to a Martha Stewart recipe involving flat black paint and tile grout to give it some tooth. One of the gallery's long walls and the adjacent short one will be painted with a band of this mixture to create the look and function of a classroom chalkboard.
"We wanted to give people an oblique entryway to walk around ideas and see them from different angles," says Lynn. "What can an art exhibition be? What can a classroom be?"
So Plum Academy, a kind of school-as-exhibition, is the centerpiece of SPACES' fall programming. There will be 18 forums where students and teachers will explore ideas ranging from the rust belt's vernacular architecture to radical choreography, from making DIY electric instruments to examining the city's graffiti.
"For me, concept is primary," says Lynn. "Concept should drive form, style and medium. A lot of times people get caught up in style and medium: shows that are all photography or all painting. But what would happen if you strip style and medium, and just have an artist in a room with an audience? That's how we arrived at this school-as-exhibition model."
Plum Academy draws from other art-school models, including the Bauhaus, which emphasized craft and the streamlining of process, and Black Mountain College, which — staffed by some of the 20th-century's top poets, artists and designers — encouraged randomness and discovery over craftsmanship. The front of the gallery will display copies of texts on radical education for visitors to read. Lynn sees the academy itself as a "performative" and collaborative project, with the accumulation of notes left on the chalkboard walls serving as evidence of what took place.
Lynn says one of his favorite classes on the schedule is "Driver's Head," facilitated behind the wheel by Kristin Bly. From the course description: "Kristin sees himself as a very good driver, with excellent skills of observation, maneuverability, predictability and driver multi-tasking. Almost unanimously, however, seemingly everyone who has ever been in a car or on a motorcycle with him has declared otherwise." The class will consist of up to four participants driving around the city with him as they discuss, and he defends, his driving practices.
Two classes touch on the aesthetics and values of graffiti. "Graffiti Frost," facilitated by Maria Samuelson, finds parallel underpinnings in the aesthetics and techniques of cake decorating and hip-hop graffiti. "Graffiti Field Trip," facilitated by Peter Tabor, is a discussion and tour of Cleveland graffiti, including the rules and conventions of the writers and its impact on city residents.
In addition to Plum Academy, SPACES' SWAP and SPACELab programs will continue in the fall season. SWAP artist Jirí Suruvka of the Czech Republic will create sculpture, painting and performance. SPACELab artist Elaine Hullihen, a 2007 Kent State University graduate, will create "floats" — personal flotation devices that function like life jackets — out of household objects. SPACELab artist Mark Moskovitz of Cleveland Heights will create a working repair shop on site. Visitors can bring items in disrepair to the opening reception, which the artist can work on during the fall exhibit season.
Plum Academy — and the rest of Lynn's first season of programming — opens with a reception he says will be more like school registration, as visitors come to socialize and choose their classes. Lynn is serving as the first lecturer, offering "Academy Dis-Orientation."
"I'll have a version of PowerPoint karaoke, where I take my old PowerPoints on a couple of dozen exhibits," he says. "People can pick one and just get up and riff on it for a five-minute lecture. There are a lot of people in the SPACES crowd who, under circumstances like this, are more than willing to just get up and go to town."